Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: U.S. Personnel and Allies Across Region Could Be Targets
Douglas Silliman says diplomats, business people, and NGO workers in the Middle East are vulnerable to Iranian retaliation after Qassem Suleimani’s killing.
Three days into the new year, the world braced itself for a dramatic escalation in tensions in the Middle East after a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad’s international airport killed a top Iranian intelligence and security official, Qassem Suleimani.
The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has promised a “forceful revenge” for the killing of Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration defended the strike, saying it was intended to thwart a planned attack that could have claimed American lives, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for a de-escalation of tensions following the attack.
The targeting of Suleimani has created one of the most dramatic flash points since the Iraq War and could have a profound impact on the regional patchwork of allegiances, particularly in Iraq, which has sought to balance Washington and Tehran.
To understand what Suleimani’s killing could mean for Iraq and the wider region, Foreign Policy spoke to Douglas Silliman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq until February 2019. After 35 years with the State Department, he retired from the foreign service in April and now serves as president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Foreign Policy: What does this mean for Iraq?
Douglas Silliman: It’ll be interesting to watch the reaction in Iraq, because Iraq is very conflicted about the American presence. It’s also very conflicted about the Iranian presence and especially Iran’s influence on the Shia militias that are now taking over large parts of the country. It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be of the young Iraqis who have been in the streets for the last four months. Will they simply condemn this American action or will they seek to use this as a way to press the government to reduce the role of militias?
The first thing I want to point out is that one of the people who was killed, along with Qassem Suleimani, was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who is the deputy commander—but for all intents and purposes the chief Iranian Quds Force operative lieutenant inside Iraq and the de facto leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces [an umbrella organization of fighters and Iran-backed militias formed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq]. He was the best tactician when it came to implementing Iran’s strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria to create a ground line of communication, a supply chain from Iran to Iraq into Syria and into Lebanon to support the Assad regime and Lebanese Hezbollah.
His death will be a very big loss for the pro-Iranian militias, and it further loosens the leadership and centralized control of the PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces]. So as I look at potential threats, I am as worried about individual militias, especially some of them had that have been Iranian-trained and -influenced, feeling that this now gives them complete individual freedom of action, because the Popular Mobilization Forces are not one unilateral force. They are a number of different groups. So that’s my first concern for my colleagues at the embassy in Baghdad and for U.S. military personnel and coalition military personnel on Iraqi bases around the country.
The reaction of Iraqi officials in the past 14, 15 hours has been interesting. President Barham Salih has condemned the attack but called for calm and reason. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has asked for the parliament to meet tomorrow to consider the question of American forces in the country and said in a statement that he believes this American attack violates the terms on which American forces are in the country. What I expect tomorrow is probably going to be a vote in the Iraqi parliament to ask American forces to leave or potentially all foreign forces to leave or coalition forces to leave. There are many Iraqis who do not want that to happen, if for no other reason, because they understand that if U.S. forces leave Iraq it means almost certainly that the other 16 members of the military coalition that is still helping the Iraqis fight ISIS in training the Iraqi Army will also leave.
So the consequences of asking U.S. forces to leave could be significant for Iraq and could end up essentially turning over control of security to more pro-Iranian factions inside the security services. So, again, the stakes are very high for Iraqis and for a lot of Iraqi Kurds, for Iraqi Sunnis and a lot of Iraqi Shia, especially those who support the demonstrators who have been in the streets for the past four months, who want to see better governance and less Iranian and militia interference in their lives.
FP: What does this mean for the United States’ Sunni allies in the region? How vulnerable are they now as Iran plans its response?
DS: I am concerned for American allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, because they are relatively easier targets for Iranian proxies to attack. So you might see attacks from Houthis in Yemen across the border into Saudi Arabia. You could potentially see attacks from Iranian-aligned PMF forces in Iraq into Saudi Arabia. And there are other people who could do mischief in the region. So I think that the Gulf states are fairly vulnerable.
If you look at what has happened in the region over the past six months, what I see is a series of Iranian-inspired, but not always Iranian-conducted, provocations, pokes at American allies to try to increase the cost to our allies and therefore to the U.S. administration of the decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal and the decision to impose economic sanctions—this maximum pressure campaign. Iran has countered with what they’re calling a maximum resistance campaign. So you saw limpet mines being put on ships just outside the Strait of Hormuz, the shooting down of the American drone, you saw attacks from inside from Yemen into Saudi Arabia on a civilian airport and some civilian infrastructure. And then early in the fall, Iranian attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. None of that elicited an American response. And I think that the Iranians had hoped that there would be some sort of excessive American response to some of those steps.
There is also a significant American military presence in virtually all of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states. And in many of those locations, you have not only soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen, but you also have families and children of American service members and not to mention families and children of American diplomats, U.S. business people, NGO workers, and nonprofits. There are a lot of Americans who live in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE and Kuwait, and elsewhere in the region. So the number of targets that have an American label gets much larger and much softer as you look at the region. I would also say there is also a possibility of attacks on Israel from Lebanon or from western Syria, which would be a little bit more difficult to accomplish. Condemnation of Israel generally goes along with condemnation of the United States in Iran, and [the drone strike] may have been seen by some in Iran as a joint venture [between the United States and Israel].
FP: The administration says that they had learned that Iran was plotting some kind of significant attack against the U.S. and that this was this was preemptive. What do you make of that claim, and do you think we will see any declassified intelligence about what that threat was?
DS: I think it would be a very difficult decision for the United States to declassify information of that nature because of the sensitivity of the way that it is collected. So I frankly don’t expect much more than a rough summary of what we have been able to pick up.
That said, Qassem Suleimani, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, pro-Iranian elements of the PMF, the Quds Force have been actively plotting and actively attacking U.S. forces, and shooting rockets at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq for a very long time. And a lot of these militias, especially Kataib Hezbollah, cut their teeth in the period between 2006 and 2011, fighting what they considered to be the American occupation of Iraq. So there has been more than enough history among these people involved of anti-American activity and violent activity. The administration’s claim is credible, but without the specifics, it’s hard to explain whether the response was commensurate with the threat.
FP: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he wants to de-escalate the situation. Based on your experience, what do you think is going on right now in the State Department?
DS: I think what’s going on in the State Department right now is a move to make sure that our personnel in the region are as well protected and out as out of harm’s way as possible.
I do believe in the current situation, however, it’s going to be very difficult to get a bilateral U.S.-Iranian discussion going. I think it’s going to have to require other international actors. And President Trump’s tweet this morning that Iran has never won a war or lost a negotiation may throw into doubt in Tehran the willingness of the United States to enter into some sort of negotiations that might de-escalate the situation. All of that said, this is such a shock to the system it does not necessarily have to lead to more conflict, and if the international community and the Trump administration and the Iranians play this right, it could end up pushing forward solutions to other problems in the area that have been unsolved for a long time.
FP: You sound a bit more optimistic than the others who are saying, “This is it, this is World War III.”
DS: I am a diplomat and an optimist at heart. … My optimism is more in the medium term. If enough actions can be taken to dissuade Iran from damaging retaliation and to dissuade the United States from taking any more escalatory steps, there may be room for some discussion with a lot of international help that can move us in the right direction and move away from a conflict.